by John Dryden
Look round the habitable world: how few
Know their own good; or knowing it, pursue.
How void of reason are our hopes and fears!
What in the conduct of our life appears
So well design'd, so luckily begun,
But, when we have our wish, we wish undone?
Whole houses, of their whole desires possess'd,
Are often ruin'd, at their own request.
In wars, and peace, things hurtful we require,
When made obnoxious to our own desire.
With laurels some have fatally been crown'd;
Some, who the depths of eloquence have found,
In that unnavigable stream were drown'd.
The brawny fool, who did his vigor boast,
In that presuming confidence was lost;
But more have been by avarice oppress'd,
And heaps of money crowded in the chest:
Unwieldy sums of wealth, which higher mount
Than files of marshal'd figures can account;
To which the stores of Craesus, in the scale,
Would look like little dolphins, when they sail
In the vast shadow of the British whale.
For this, in Nero's arbitrary time,
When virtue was a guilt, and wealth a crime,
A troop of cutthroat guards were sent to seize
The rich men's goods, and gut their palaces:
The mob, commission'd by the government,
Are seldom to an empty garret sent.
The fearful passenger, who travels late,
Charg'd with the carriage of a paltry plate,
Shakes at the moonshine shadow of a rush,
And sees a redcoat rise from every bush:
The beggar sings, ev'n when he sees the place
Beset with thieves, and never mends his pace.
Of all the vows, the first and chief request
Of each is, to be richer than the rest;
And yet no doubts the poor man's draught control,
He dreads no poison in his homely bowl.
Then fear the deadly drug, when gems divine
Enchase the cup, and sparkle in the wine.
Will you not now the pair of sages praise,
Who the same end pursued, by several ways?
One pitied, one contemn'd the woful times;
One laugh'd at follies, one lamented crimes:
Laughter is easy; but the wonder lies,
What stores of brine supplied the weeper's eyes.
Democritus could feed his spleen, and shake
His sides and shoulders till he felt 'em ache;
Tho' in his country town no lictors were,
Nor rods, nor ax, nor tribune did appear;
Nor all the foppish gravity of show
Which cunning magistrates on crowds bestow.
What had he done, had he beheld, on high,
Our praetor seated, in mock majesty?
His chariot rolling o'er the dusty place.
While, with dumb pride, and a set formal face,
He moves in the dull ceremonial track,
With Jove's embroider'd coat upon his back:
A suit of hangings had not more oppress'd
His shoulders, than that long, laborious vest:
A heavy gewgaw, (call'd a crown,) that spread
About his temples, drown'd his narrow head;
And would have crush'd it with the massy freight,
But that a sweating slave sustain'd the weight:
A slave in the same chariot seen to ride,
To mortify the mighty madman's pride.
Add now th' imperial eagle, rais'd on high,
With golden beak (the mark of majesty),
Trumpets before, and on the left and right,
A cavalcade of nobles, all in white:
In their own natures false and flatt'ring tribes,
But made his friends by places and by bribes.
In his own age, Democritus could find
Sufficient cause to laugh at humankind:
Learn from so great a wit: a land of bogs
With ditches fenc'd, a heaven fat with fogs,
May form a spirit fit to sway the State;
And make the neighb'ring monarchs fear their fate.
He laughs at all the vulgar cares and fears;
At their vain triumphs, and their vainer tears:
An equal temper in his mind he found,
When Fortune flatter'd him, and when she frown'd.
'T is plain, from hence, that what our vows, request
Are hurtful things, or useless at the best.
Some ask for envied pow'r; which public hate
Pursues, and hurries headlong to their fate:
Down go the titles; and the statue crown'd
Is by base hands in the next river drown'd.
The guiltless horses, and the chariot wheel,
The same effects of vulgar fury feel:
The smith prepares his hammer for the stroke,
While the lung'd bellows hissing fire provoke;
Sejanus, almost first of Roman names,
The great Sejanus crackles in the flames:
Form'd in the forge, the pliant brass is laid
On anvils; and of head and limbs are made
Pans, cans, and pisspots, a whole kitchen trade.
Adorn your doors with laurels; and a bull,
Milk-white, and large, lead to the Capitol;
Sejanus with a rope is dragg'd along,
The sport and laughter of the giddy throng!
" Good Lord, " they cry, " what Ethiop lips he has,
How foul a snout, and what a hanging face!
By Heav'n, I never could endure his sight;
But say, how came his monstrous crimes to light?
What is the charge, and who the evidence
(The savior of the nation and the prince)? "
" Nothing of this; but our old Caesar sent
A noisy letter to his parliament. "
" Nay, sirs, if Caesar writ, I ask no more —
He's guilty; and the question's out of door. "
How goes the mob? (for that's a mighty thing.)
When the king's trump, the mob are for the king:
They follow Fortune, and the common cry
Is still against the rogue condemn'd to die.
But the same very mob, that rascal crowd,
Had cried Sejanus, with a shout as loud,
Had his designs (by Fortune's favor blest)
Succeeded, and the prince's age oppress'd,
But long, long since, the times have chang'd their face,
The people grown degenerate and base;
Not suffer'd now the freedom of their choice,
To make their magistrates, and sell their voice.
Our wise forefathers, great by sea and land,
Had once the pow'r and absolute command;
All offices of trust, themselves dispos'd;
Rais'd whom they pleas'd, and whom they pleas'd depos'd.
But we, who give our native rights away,
And our inslav'd posterity betray,
Are now reduc'd to beg an alms, and go
On holidays to see a puppet show.
" There was a damn'd design, " cries one, " no doubt;
For warrants are already issued out:
I met Brutidius in a mortal fright;
He's dipp'd for certain, and plays least in sight:
I fear the rage of our offended prince,
Who thinks the senate slack in his defense!
Come, let us haste, our loyal zeal to show,
And spurn the wretched corpse of Caesar's foe:
But let our slaves be present there, lest they
Accuse their masters, and for gain betray. "
Such were the whispers of those jealous times
About Sejanus' punishment and crimes.
Now, tell me truly, wouldst thou change thy fate
To be, like him, first minister of state?
To have thy levees crowded with resort,
Of a depending, gaping, servile court;
Dispose all honors of the sword and gown,
Grace with a nod, and ruin with a frown;
To hold thy prince in pupilage, and sway
That monarch whom the master'd world obey?
While he, intent on secret lusts alone,
Lives to himself, abandoning the throne;
Coop'd in a narrow isle, observing dreams
With flatt'ring wizards, and erecting schemes!
I well believe, thou wouldst be great as he;
For every man's a fool to that degree;
All wish the dire prerogative to kill;
Ev'n they would have the pow'r, who want the will:
But wouldst thou have thy wishes understood,
To take the bad together with the good?
Wouldst thou not rather choose a small renown,
To be the may'r of some poor paltry town,
Bigly to look, and barb'rously to speak;
To pound false weights, and scanty measures break?
Then, grant we that Sejanus went astray
In ev'ry wish, and knew not how to pray:
For he who grasp'd the world's exhausted store,
Yet never had enough, but wish'd for more,
Rais'd a top-heavy tow'r, of monstrous height,
Which mold'ring, crush'd him underneath the weight.
What did the mighty Pompey's fall beget;
And ruin'd him, who, greater than the Great,
The stubborn pride of Roman nobles broke,
And bent their haughty necks beneath his yoke?
What else but his immoderate lust of pow'r,
Pray'rs made and granted in a luckless hour?
For few usurpers to the shades descend
By a dry leath, or with a quiet end.
The boy, who scarce has paid his entrance down
To his proud pedant, or declin'd a noun,
(So small an elf, that, when the days are foul,
He and his satchel must be borne to school,)
Yet prays, and hopes, and aims at nothing less,
To prove a Tully, or Demosthenes:
But both those orators, so much renown'd,
In their own depths of eloquence were drown'd:
The hand and head were never lost of those
Who dealt in dogg'rel, or who punn'd in prose.
" Fortune foretun'd the dying notes of Rome:
Till I, thy consul sole, consol'd thy doom. "
His fate had crept below the lifted swords,
Had all his malice been to murther words.
I rather would be Maevius, thrash for rhymes
Like his, the scorn and scandal of the times,
Than that Philippic , fatally divine,
Which is inscrib'd the Second , should be mine.
Nor he, the wonder of the Grecian throng,
Who drove them with the torrent of his tongue,
Who shook the theaters, and sway'd the state
Of Athens, found a more propitious fate:
Whom, born beneath a boding horoscope,
His sire, the blear-ey'd Vulcan of a shop,
From Mars his forge, sent to Minerva's schools,
To learn th' unlucky art of wheedling fools.
With itch of honor and opinion vain,
All things beyond their native worth we strain:
The spoils of war, brought to Feretrian Jove,
An empty coat of armor hung above
The conqueror's chariot, and in triumph borne,
A streamer from a boarded galley torn,
A chap-fall'n beaver loosely hauging by
The cloven helm, an arch of victory,
On whose high convex sits a captive foe,
And sighing casts a mournful look below;
Of ev'ry nation each illustrious name,
Such toys as these have cheated into fame:
Exchanging solid quiet, to obtain
The windy satisfaction of the brain.
So much the thirst of honor fires the blood;
So many would be great, so few be good.
For who would Virtue for herself regard,
Or wed, without the portion of reward?
Yet this mad chase of fame, by few pursued,
Has drawn destruction on the multitude:
This avarice of praise in times to come,
Those long inscriptions, crowded on the tomb,
Should some wild fig tree take her native bent,
And heave below the gaudy monument,
Would crack the marble titles, and disperse
The characters of all the lying verse.
For sepulchers themselves must crumbling fall
In time's abyss, the common grave of all.
Great Hannibal within the balance lay,
And tell how many pounds his ashes weigh;
Whom Afric was not able to contain,
Whose length runs level with th' Atlantic main,
And wearies fruitful Nilus, to convey
His sun-beat waters by so long a way;
Which Ethiopia's double clime divides,
And elephants in other mountains hides.
Spain first he won, the Pyrenaeans pass'd,
And steepy Alps, the mounds that Nature cast;
And with corroding juices, as he went,
A passage thro' the living rocks he rent.
Then, like a torrent, rolling from on high,
He pours his headlong rage on Italy;
In three victorious battles overrun;
Yet still uneasy, cries: " There 's nothing done,
Till level with the ground their gates are laid,
And Punic flags on Roman tow'rs display'd. "
Ask what a face belong'd to this high fame:
His picture scarcely would deserve a frame;
A signpost dauber would disdain to paint
The one-ey'd hero on his elephant.
Now what's his end, O charming Glory! say,
What rare fifth act to crown this huffing play?
In one deciding battle overcome,
He flies, is banish'd from his native home;
Begs refuge in a foreign court, and there
Attends, his mean petition to prefer;
Repuls'd by surly grooms, who wait before
The sleeping tyrant's interdicted door.
What wondrous sort of death has Heav'n design'd,
Distinguish'd from the herd of humankind,
For so untam'd, so turbulent a mind!
Nor swords at hand, nor hissing darts afar,
Are doom'd t' avenge the tedious bloody war;
But poison, drawn thro' a ring's hollow plate,
Must finish him; a sucking infant's fate.
Go, climb the rugged Alps, ambitious fool,
To please the boys, and be a theme at school.
One world suffic'd not Alexander's mind:
Coop'd up, he seem'd in earth and seas confin'd;
And, struggling, stretch'd his restless limbs about
The narrow globe, to find a passage out.
Yet, enter'd in the brick-built town, he tried
The tomb, and found the strait dimensions wide:
" Death only this mysterious truth unfolds,
The mighty soul, how small a body holds. "
Old Greece a tale of Athos would make out,
Cut from the continent, and sail'd about;
Seas hid with navies, chariots passing o'er
The channel, on a bridge from shore to shore:
Rivers, whose depth no sharp beholder sees,
Drunk at an army's dinner, to the lees;
With a long legend of romantic things,
Which in his cups the bowsy poet sings.
But how did he return, this haughty brave,
Who whipp'd the winds, and made the sea his slave?
(Tho' Neptune took unkindly to be bound;
And Eurus never such hard usage found
In his Æolian prisons under ground;)
What god so mean, ev'n he who points the way,
So merciless a tyrant to obey!
But how return'd he? let us ask again:
In a poor skiff he pass'd the bloody main,
Chok'd with the slaughter'd bodies of his train.
For fame he pray'd, but let th' event declare
He had no mighty penn'worth of his pray'r.
" Jove, grant me length of life, and years' good store
Heap on my bending back; I ask no more. "
Both sick and healthful, old and young, conspire
In this one silly mischievous desire.
Mistaken blessing, which old age they call!
'T is a long, nasty, darksome hospital,
A ropy chain of rheums; a visage rough,
Deform'd, unfeatur'd, and a skin of buff;
A stitch-fall'n cheek, that hangs below the jaw;
Such wrinkles, as a skilful hand would draw
For an old grandam ape, when, with a grace,
She sits at squat, and scrubs her leathern face.
In youth, distinctions infinite abound;
No shape or feature just alike are found;
The fair, the black, the feeble, and the strong;
But the same foulness does to age belong,
The selfsame palsy, both in limbs and tongue;
The skull and forehead one bald barren plain,
And gums unarm'd to mumble meat in vain:
Besides th' eternal drivel, that supplies
The dropping beard, from nostrils, mouth, and eyes.
His wife and children loathe him, and, what's worse,
Himself does his offensive carrion curse!
Flatt'rers forsake him too; for who would kill
Himself, to be remember'd in a will?
His taste not only pall'd to wine and meat,
But to the relish of a nobler treat.
The limber nerve, in vain provok'd to rise,
Inglorious from the field of battle flies:
Poor feeble dotard, how could he advance
With his blue headpiece, and his broken lance?
Add, that endeavoring still without effect,
A lust more sordid justly we suspect.
Those senses lost, behold a new defeat,
The soul dislodging from another seat.
What music, or enchanting voice, can cheer
A stupid, old, impenetrable ear?
No matter in what place, or what degree
Of the full theater, he sits to see;
Cornets and trumpets cannot reach his ear:
Under an actor's nose he's never near.
His boy must bawl, to make him understand
The hour o' th' day, or such a lord 's at hand:
The little blood that creeps within his veins,
Is but just warm'd in a hot fever's pains.
In fine, he wears no limb about him sound;
With sores and sicknesses beleaguer'd round:
Ask me their names, I sooner could relate
How many drudges on salt Hippia wait;
What crowds of patients the town doctor kills,
Or how, last fall, he rais'd the weekly bills;
What provinces by Basilus were spoil'd;
What herds of heirs by guardians are beguil'd;
How many bouts a day that bitch has tried;
How many boys that pedagogue can ride;
What lands and lordships for their owners know
My quondam barber, but his worship now.
This dotard of his broken back complains,
One his legs fail, and one his shoulder pains;
Another is of both his eyes bereft,
And envies who has one for aiming left.
A fifth with trembling lips expecting stands,
As in his childhood, cramm'd by others' hands;
One, who at sight of supper open'd wide
His jaws before, and whetted grinders tried;
Now only yawns, and waits to be supplied:
Like a young swallow, when with weary wings
Expected food her fasting mother brings.
His loss of members is a heavy curse,
But all his faculties decay'd, a worse!
His servants' names he has forgotten quite;
Knows not his friend who supp'd with him last night:
Not ev'n the children he begot and bred;
Or his will knows 'em not; for, in their stead,
In form of law, a common hackney jade,
Sole heir, for secret services, is made;
So lewd, and such a batter'd brothel whore,
That she defies all comers at her door.
Well, yet suppose his senses are his own,
He lives to be chief mourner for his son:
Before his face his wife and brother burns;
He numbers all his kindred in their urns.
These are the fines he pays for living long,
And dragging tedious age in his own wrong:
Griefs always green, a household still in tears,
Sad pomps, a threshold throng'd with daily biers,
And liveries of black for length of years.
Next to the raven's age, the Pylian king
Was longest liv'd of any two-legg'd thing;
Blest, to defraud the grave so long, to mount
His number'd years, and on his right hand count
Three hundred seasons, guzzling must of wine!
But, hold a while, and hear himself repine
At fate's unequal laws; and at the clue
Which, merciless in length, the midmost sister drew.
When his brave son upon the fun'ral pyre
He saw extended, and his beard on fire,
He turn'd, and weeping, ask'd his friends what crime
Had curs'd his age to this unhappy time.
Thus mourn'd old Peleus for Achilles slain,
And thus Ulysses' father did complain.
How fortunate an end had Priam made,
Among his ancestors a mighty shade,
While Troy yet stood; when Hector, with the race
Of royal bastards, might his funeral grace:
Amidst the tears of Trojan dames inurn'd,
And by his loyal daughters truly mourn'd!
Had Heav'n so blest him, he had died before
The fatal fleet to Sparta Paris bore.
But mark what age produc'd; he liv'd to see
His town in flames, his falling monarchy
In fine, the feeble sire, reduc'd by fate,
To change his scepter for a sword, too late,
His last effort before Jove's altar tries;
A soldier half, and half a sacrifice:
Falls like an ox, that waits the coming blow;
Old and unprofitable to the plow.
At least, he died a man; his queen surviv'd,
To howl, and in a barking body liv'd.
I hasten to our own; nor will relate
Great Mithridates' and rich Craesus' fate;
Whom Solon wisely counsel'd to attend
The name of happy, till he knew his end.
That Marius was an exile, that he fled,
Was ta'en, in ruin'd Carthage begg'd his bread,
All these were owing to a life too long:
For whom had Rome beheld so happy, young!
High in his chariot, and with laurel crown'd,
When he had led the Cimbrian captives round.
The Roman streets; descending from his state,
In that blest hour he should have begg'd his fate:
Then, then, he might have died of all admir'd,
And his triumphant soul with shouts expir'd.
Campania, Fortune's malice to prevent,
To Pompey an indulgent fever sent;
But public pray'rs impos'd on Heav'n, to give
Their much-lov'd leader an unkind reprieve.
The city's fate and his conspir'd to save
The head reserv'd for an Egyptian slave.
Cethegus, tho' a traitor to the State,
And tortur'd, scap'd this ignominous fate:
And Sergius, who a bad cause bravely tried,
All of a piece, and undiminish'd, died.
To Venus the fond mother makes a pray'r,
That all her sons and daughters may be fair:
True, for the boys a mumbling vow she sends;
But, for the girls, the vaulted temple rends:
They must be finish'd pieces; 't is allow'd
Diana's beauty made Latona proud,
And pleas'd, to see the wond'ring people pray
To the new-rising sister of the day.
And yet Lucretia's fate would bar that vow;
And fair Virginia would her fate bestow
On Rutila, and change her faultless make
For the foul rumple of her camel back.
But, for his mother's boy, the beau, what frights
His parents have by day, what anxious mights!
Form join'd with virtue is a sight too rare:
Chaste is no epithet to suit with fair.
Suppose the same traditionary strain
Of rigid manners in the house remain;
Inveterate truth, an old plain Sabine's heart;
Suppose that Nature, too, has done her part;
Infus'd into his soul a sober grace,
And blush'd a modest blood into his face,
(For Nature is a better guardian far
Than saucy pedants, or dull tutors are:)
Yet still the youth must ne'er arrive at man;
(So much almighty bribes and presents can;)
Ev'n with a parent, where persuasions fail,
Money is impudent, and will prevail.
We never read of such a tyrant king,
Who gelt a boy deform'd, to hear him sing.
Nor Nero, in his more luxurious rage,
E'er made a mistress of an ugly page:
Sporus, his spouse, nor crooked was, nor lame,
With mountain back, and belly, from the game
Cross-barr'd; but both his sexes well became.
Go, boast your springal, by his beauty curst
To ills, nor think I have declar'd the worst:
His form procures him journeywork; a strife
Betwixt town-madams, and the merchant's wife:
Guess, when he undertakes this public war,
What furious beasts offended cuckolds are.
Adult'rers are with dangers round beset;
Born under Mars, they cannot scape the net;
And from revengeful husbands oft have tried
Worse handling than severest laws provide:
One stabs; one slashes; one, with cruel art,
Makes colon suffer for the peccant part.
But your Endymion, your smooth, smockfac'd boy,
Unrival'd, shall a beauteous dame enjoy.
Not so: one more salacious, rich, and old,
Outbids, and buys her pleasure for her gold:
Now he must moil and drudge for one he loathes;
She keeps him high in equipage and clothes;
She pawns her jewels and her rich attire,
And thinks the workman worthy of his hire:
In all things else immoral, stingy, mean;
But, in her lusts, a conscionable quean.
" She may be handsome, yet be chaste, " you say —
Good observator, not so fast away:
Did it not cost the modest youth his life,
Who shunn'd th' embraces of his father's wife?
And was not t'other stripling forc'd to fly,
Who coldly did his patron's queen deny,
And pleaded laws of hospitality?
The ladies charg'd 'em home, and turn'd the tale;
With shame they redden'd, and with spite grew pale.
'T is dangrous to deny the longing dame;
She loses pity, who has lost her shame.
Now Silius wants thy counsel, give advice;
Wed Caesar's wife, or die; the choice is nice.
Her comet-eyes she darts on ev'ry grace,
And takes a fatal liking to his face.
Adorn'd with bridal pomp she sits in state;
The public notaries and auspex wait;
The genial bed is in the garden dress'd,
The portion paid, and ev'ry rite express'd
Which in a Roman marriage is profess'd.
'T is no stol'n wedding this; rejecting awe,
She scorns to marry, but in form of law.
In this moot case, your judgment: to refuse
Is present death, besides the night you lose:
If you consent, 't is hardly worth your pain;
A day or two of anxious life you gain,
Till loud reports thro' all the town have pass'd,
And reach the prince; for cuckolds hear the last.
Indulge thy pleasure, youth, and take thy swing;
For not to take is but the selfsame thing:
Inevitable death before thee lies,
But looks more kindly thro' a lady's eyes.
What then remains? Are we depriv'd of will;
Must we not wish, for fear of wishing ill?
Receive my counsel, and securely move;
Intrust thy fortune to the pow'rs above.
Leave them to manage for thee, and to grant
What their unerring wisdom sees thee want:
In goodness as in greatness they excel:
Ah, that we lov'd ourselves but half so well!
We, blindly by our headstrong passions led,
Are hot for action, and desire to wed;
Then wish for heirs: but to the gods alone
Our future offspring, and our wives are known;
Th' audacious strumpet, and ungracious son.
Yet, not to rob the priests of pious gain,
That altars be not wholly built in vain;
Forgive the gods the rest, and stand confin'd
To health of body, and content of mind:
A soul, that can securely death defy,
And count it nature's privilege to die;
Serene and manly, harden'd to sustain
The load of life, and exercis'd in pain;
Guiltless of hate, and proof against desire;
That all things weighs, and nothing can admire;
That dares prefer the toils of Hercules
To dalliance, banquets, and ignoble ease.
The path to peace is virtue: what I show,
Thyself may freely on thyself bestow:
Fortune was never worship'd by the wise;
But, set aloft by fools, usurps the skies.
Last updated October 29, 2022